TERMINILLO, Italy (VN) — As if there was any doubt.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) delivered a potential knockout blow at Tirreno-Adriatico on Sunday in the first major showdown of the 2015 season for the Tour de France favorites.
Slicing up the snowbound Terminillo summit in stage 5, it was the “Shark” versus the “Pistolero,” but it was a Colombian condor who soared away from both Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) in the highly anticipated shootout.
In his first victory in Europe of the 2015 season, Quintana uncorked a lethal attack with about 5km to go in the 194km stage from Esanatoglia to Monte Terminillo. That immediately popped Nibali, who lost more than two minutes and plunged out of GC contention. Contador tried two counter-surges, but Quintana was gone. With heavy snowfall pelting the riders in the closing kilometers, Quintana fended off a counter-attack from a surging Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing) to win the stage by 41 seconds and snag the overall leader’s jersey by 39 seconds.
The 25-year-old Colombian climber couldn’t have done it in more dramatic conditions, or against a more elite field, and he pumped his fists in jubilation as snowfall nearly blocked the view.
“I felt good with 5km to go, and when I looked back, I didn’t notice anyone really strong enough to come with me,” Quintana said. “I am very happy to have won. To win my first race of the year, and do it in the manner that I did, that’s why I celebrated like I did across the line.”
With two stages to go, the Terminillo climb — the longest of the 2015 European race season so far at 14km, but far from the steepest — reshuffled the GC deck, perhaps permanently, and provided a few clues about where the top riders are on form.
Nibali refused to talk to reporters at the finish for the second consecutive day. The 2014 Tour champ lost a few seconds Saturday, and didn’t have the legs to respond when Quintana punched the accelerator on Sunday. The Italian won this race two straight years (2012 and 2013), but clearly isn’t anywhere near the form required to fight for the podium. Like last season, it appears Nibali seems content to fly under the radar until he gets closer to the Tour.
Contador, in sharp contrast, stopped right at the finish line to talk the media waiting in the snow. Now fifth at 1:03 back, he all but threw in the towel as regards defending his overall victory from last year.
“I was behind when Quintana attacked, and he set a very fast rhythm, and I couldn’t close him down,” Contador said. “I am not going to make any excuses. It was a complicated stage. I was hoping for better, and I couldn’t be up there higher like I wanted.”
Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick Step) rode much of the climb with his jersey unzipped, and only buttoned up when the peloton climbed into the pelting snow in the final few kilometers. Despite rolling in with the lead group of six chasers, he admitted it could be hard to take back 48 seconds the 10km individual time trial that concludes the race on Tuesday. Like Contador, Urán is heading to the Giro, and looks to be in fine shape.
“Nairo was very strong. He attacked very far, and he’s shown he’s in better condition that the rest of us,” Urán said. “I tried to be there with the other favorites. There’s still the final time trial, so I hope to fight for the overall with Quintana, because I always go pretty good in the time trial. I would be happy to finish on the podium in a race of this level. I always give the maximum on a climb like this, especially because the time trial is only 10km, it’s not one of 50km.”
Even more impressive was Mollema, who was motivated to try to win the stage for his new employers at Trek Factory Racing. He countered behind Quintana, and although he couldn’t close the gap to the Colombian, he finished ahead of some pretty heady company.
“I haven’t been with these guys too many times (Contador, Nibali). I am happy I have made this step. Of course, it’s just one day, but I hope to continue on this way all season long,” Mollema said.
“It was an heroic stage today. We were lucky, because it only started to rain in the final. The last 2km, there was snow, and the road was slippery, it was heroic in these conditions. I am very happy with my performance today. I really wanted to do a good result today. I wanted to fight for the victory, and do a good result in the GC, so I am happy with my result.”
Overnight leader Wouter Poels (Sky) succumbed to the fierce accelerations, and slipped to 10th at 1:13 back.
“The snow fell in the finale, but Quintana was really strong,” Poels said. “I wasn’t good enough to follow the best guys today.”
Tirreno-Adriatico is about winning now, but the weeklong race also provides clues about the hierarchy in a new season.
On both scores, Quintana is standing tall against rivals he’s facing this week, and against those he’ll square off against in July. Froome was a late-hour abandon due to illness, so he’s missing the chance to measure himself against Quintana, but Terminillo reconfirmed that the Colombian’s going to be flying every time the road goes uphill. And at this year’s Tour, there is no shortage of climbs.
“Miracles happen, but thanks to hard work. The team protected me, and delivered me into good position to win,” Quintana said.
“I had a difficult start of the season. After the fall in the Vuelta, with the broken shoulder, it took me awhile to recover, and then I crashed again in the Colombian championships, and I was sad that I couldn’t race at the Ruta del Sol. Everyone supported me, and I could recover, and I could come back to this rhythm of training to arrive at the first race in Europe, and to be in good conditions.”
Movistar takes huge confidence out of Quintana’s performance. After a rough off-season hounded by injury, the Colombian reminded everyone that when the road tilts upward, he’s very hard to beat.